Tenebrae Blu-ray Review (originally published 2016)
American author Peter Neal (Anthony Franciosa) has come to Italy on a press tour for his latest thriller, “Tenebre” – a tale of bloody murder concerning a killer’s obsession with traditional Christian morality. Just before Neal’s arrival, there has been a brutal murder and the victim’s mouth has been stuffed with pages from his novel. Neal and his assistant Ann (Daria Nicolodi) join Italian detective Giermani (Giuliano Gemma) in investigating the increasingly violent crimes, seemingly made in homage to Neal’s popular novel.
Warning: this review has loads of spoilers
Dario Argento’s Tenebrae (aka: Tenebre and Unsane, 1982), is one of the divisive director’s most accessible features, however, despite its flashy imagery, crackerjack plot, and eye-popping violence, a full appreciation requires an established recognition of Argento’s tropes, his obsessions, his strengths, and his most endearing weaknesses. Before Tenebrae, Argento tried to move away from the gialli films that made him famous with a historical comedy called Le cinque giornate (aka: The Five Days of Milan, 1973). When it failed to connect with critics or audiences, Argento retreated back to familiar territory to make his most elaborate and celebrated thriller, Deep Red (Italian: Profondo Rosso, 1975). Deep Red was meant to be his last word on the subject of, at least for a time, and, following its success, Argento was once again free to expand his repertoire with his first fantasy horror film, Suspiria (1977). When Suspiria grew into the biggest hit of his career and the movie that defined his artististry outside of Italy, he followed it up with a semi-sequel, Inferno (1980), and established the promise of a complete trilogy of movies about the demonic Three Mothers that acted as the super-antagonists in his shared fantasy horror universe (which itself was loosely based on Thomas De Quincey’s Suspiria de Profundis, published in 1845). But Inferno was a tortured production, a critical disappointment, and failed to turn a profit when Hollywood co-producers at Twentieth Century Fox released it in a limited capacity (Argento made a couple more American co-productions, but never worked with a major Hollywood studio again).
Following this second supposed failure, Argento withdrew again into the familiarity of giallo and made Tenebrae in 1982. In an interview for Luca M. Palmerini & Gaetano Mistretta’s Spaghetti Nightmares (Fantasma Books, 1996), Argento spun the story in a slightly more creative light, claiming that he felt “restricted by obligations to make a final chapter” in his promised Three Mothers trilogy. In other interviews, he claimed that he was annoyed by the “derivative and inferior” giallo that had cropped up in his absence and wanted to re-establish his dominance in the genre. Whichever theory you subscribe to (perhaps even all three), Tenebrae is a culmination of frustrating and frightening experiences that grew into the director’s most personal film. This is really saying something, considering his penchant for inserting vicarious avatars of himself into most of his thrillers. Here, a number of autobiographical elements – including the time Argento was stalked and threatened by a disturbed fan and a memories of a number of murders that occurred in the LA area once while he was visiting – are combined with free-floating resentment to create a stylish, long-winded, and sarcastic joke at the expense of resentful fans and the critics that assumed that only a psychopath could possibly make such violent movies.
Tenebrae might not quite be the giallo to end all gialli – though the genre was already on its last legs in terms of popularity in the early ‘80s – but it did set out to put Argento’s specific giallo formula to bed. Beginning with The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (Italian: L'uccello dalle piume di cristallo, 1970) and extending through Cat O’ Nine Tails (Italian: Il gatto a nove code, 1971), Four Flies on Grey Velvet (Italian: 4 mosche di velluto grigio, 1971) and Deep Red, Argento’s gialli revolved around an artist type (in order: a writer, a puzzle-maker, a musician, and another musician), usually foreign protagonist who witnesses a murder/attempted murder, becomes a suspect, mounts his own amatuer investigation, and becomes a target of the killer when he – and sometimes his friends/family – gets too close to the truth. Initially, Peter Neal fits the mold perfectly. He’s an artistic type (a writer) visiting Italy who is wrapped-up in a murder investigation as a person of interest. When the killer threatens him, he teams up with a couple of different acquaintances to mount his own investigation. The key distinction throughout the early part of the movie is that Neal doesn’t witness any of the crimes firsthand.
The obvious diversion from type is only revealed at the end of the film, when Detective Giermani (portrayed by former spaghetti western superstar Giuliano Gemma) figures out that Neal has actually taken over the role of the killer after murdering the original killer, a journalist named Christiano Berti (cult favorite John Steiner). Unlike the unsullied protagonists of Argento’s earlier films, specifically The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, in which a mutual respect develops between the amateur sleuth and his crime solving buddy (usually a law enforcement official, love interest, and/or investigative journalist), Neal only feigns reverence for Giermani so that he can exploit the detective. Like most pulp fiction villains, the author is caught when he baits his nemesis with a few too many clues. He mocks Giermani when confronted with arrest, telling him that planning the ruse was as easy as “writing a book.” Then, after one more trick (faking his own death), he brutally murders the detective*. And, like most of Argento’s protagonists, Neal’s victory is nearly absolute. He is only dispatched in order to fulfill the final part of the Argento formula – the villain must meet with a brutal end. The climax also indulges in one more act of autobiographical irony. The director’s avatar meets his end when the woman he loves (played by Argento’s then real-life spouse Daria Nicolodi) accidentally impales him on an art installation that looks like a tower of sharp metal phalluses.
Argento’s joke takes on an especially sinister tone by implying that the director’s avatar is the kind of psychopath his critics assume he is, that his creative endeavors (writing crime fiction/making horror movies) do make him a more efficient murderer, and that even his fans aren’t safe from his violent behavior. Fortunately for uninitiated viewers (and the fans that aren’t particularly interested in Argento’s personal battles), Tenebrae also works as a hyper-violent, melodramatic murder mystery and the final twist doesn’t require the audience to understand the Peter Neal = Dario Argento joke/analogy. In fact, viewers that are unfamiliar with the Argento formula may actually guess the secondary killer’s identity before the Argento loyalists, who had been conditioned to assume that the central protagonist will eventually be exonerated, even if he isn’t able to solve the crime on his own (in Four Flies on Grey Velvet and Deep Red, the mystery killers reveal themselves to the protagonists and explain their schemes). Argento practically spells out Neal’s guilt with a series of dreamy, first-person flashbacks that are almost explicitly tied to the author (he suffers migraine headaches and the flashbacks are framed by images of a mysterious figure taking medication for what appear to be very painful headaches) and doesn’t supply many alternative suspects, once the initial killer is dispatched.
Argento was never one to shy away from sex and violence, but Tenebrae was the first of his films to directly reference the surge of vulgarity occurring in mainstream Hollywood, driven by the wild popularity of slasher movies. The escalation of gore in the set-pieces and the more overt sexual tones (violence tended to replace sex in the earlier Argento gialli) certainly owed a debt to movies like Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (itself ironic, considering how much Cunningham stole from Argento and Mario Bava), but this wasn’t unique to Tenebrae – other ‘80s gialli, including Lucio Fulci’s The New York Ripper (Italian: Italian: Lo squartatore di New York, 1982), Lamberto Bava’s A Blade in the Dark (Italian: La casa con la scala nel buio, 1982), and Michele Soavi’s StageFright (Italian: Deliria; aka: Bloody Bird, Aquarius, and The Sound Stage Massacre, 1987), also amplified sex and violence in deference to the slashers. Argento upped the ante by also adopting the puritan implications of the early slashers, in which sinful behavior (i.e. partaking in sex and/or drugs) is punishable by murder. Before Wes Craven’s post-modern slasher, Scream (1996), and before David Fincher’s Se7en (1995) conceived of a moralistic serial killer that based his crimes on religious motifs, Argento conjured the story of a pious madman (journalist Christiano Berti – the first killer) that murders the people he deems aberrant and corrupt, based on his misreading of a popular and (by all accounts) trashy mystery novel.
The first victim is guilty of the most petty crime in the entire film – attempted shoplifting (she doesn’t even get away with it). She is ambushed at her home and has pages from Neal’s book shoved into her mouth before having her throat slit **. Following that, a lesbian couple (one with bisexual proclivities) are sliced in a particularly stylish manner to the disco dance tones of the film’s main title theme***. When Berti feels the heat approaching, he smashes his straight razor in an effort to destroy evidence, forcing Neal to adopt a large axe as his messy murder weapon of choice. He buries the axe in Berti’s head and chops poor Giermani to ribbons, but the real show-stopper is the hyper-baroque murder of Neal’s estranged wife, Jane (Veronica Lario). Jane has her forearm chopped off below the wrist and proceeds to literally paint the whitewashed wall behind her with blood, after which, Neal finishes the job. As one of Argento’s most violent and sexually-charged films, Tenebrae was the victim of censorship in many countries. The US release (under the title Unsane) was about ten minutes shorter than Argento’s director’s cut, including trims to the expansive Luma crane shot that precedes the lesbian murders, snips to expositional scenes, and extensive cuts to Lario’s wall-painting death (which was almost entirely excised from Italian home video releases in the ‘90s, after the actress married Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi). After suffering similar edits in the UK, Tenebrae was included on the BBFC’s list of banned video nasties, alongside Inferno, and remains comprehensively censored to this day in Germany.
As a fan, I’d say that Tenebrae’s most prominent weakness is its faux-futuristic aesthetic, which dates the film in occasionally embarrassing ways. According to interviews it is, in fact, a semi-post-apocalyptic tale that takes place in the near future. Though Argento didn’t necessarily intend audiences to recognize the minor sci-fi trappings, he has stated that Tenebrae takes place in a world where the population has been drastically depleted by some forgotten plague (or atomic blast – the story seems to change depending on the interview). The director’s fearful state while writing the script (again, based on his stalker experiences and the random LA tourist murders) led him to imagine that this depopulated future world would be inhabited almost exclusively by angry jerks. The blood-thirsty murderers are the obvious bad guys, but the non-combative background characters are also constantly embroiled in squabbles and spats. Even dogs are portrayed as wrathful monsters that will chase a girl to the ends of the earth for daring to rattle the fence around their properties. Argento hammers home the overwhelmingly negative attitude of this post-apocalyptic world in the scene where Bullmer (John Saxon) waits for his secret lover, Jane, in an active public square, while public (and irrelevant) arguments break out around him. The scene ends when Neal stabs Bullmer to death in full view of the crowd, yet no one notices until the killer has already made his escape.
Argento’s first four gialli embraced ‘70s pop culture in a manner that appears chic in the 21st century, while Suspiria and Inferno take place in a fairytale timeline where medieval and modern aesthetics collide. All of these films end up with a sort of timeless quality. Tenebrae’s fluorescent backdrops, brutalist architecture, modern art-strewn apartments, and early-’80s attire is incontrovertibly tied to the era in which the film was released. On the other hand, cinematographer Luciano Tovoli’s super-bright photography – which was inspired by televised crime shows, like Columbo and Charlie’s Angels (no kidding), as well as Andrzej Żuławski’s similarly luminous Possession (1981) – serves Tenebrae’s pervasive sense of irony. Stylistically, gialli tend to be visually rooted in German Expressionism and film noir; both of which are largely defined by dark backdrops, moody lighting, and long shadows. When asked about the anti-noir approach, Argento’s official byline was that he was evoking the brighter look of the modern world in literal and esoteric ways (“In the gloom, one can hide what one wants to reject, what one doesn’t dare show. But we are ill at ease in the harsh glare. We have everything right in front of us”). Of course, shooting a bloody suspense thriller under harsh light is also just generally a subversive act and it fits the film’s M.O., as does the meaning of the Latin word used for the title, Tenebrae (and the Italian word “tenebre”) which literally translates to “darkness” (the Greek and Japanese titles were literally “shadows”). Smarter critics than myself have argued that the “darkness” the title refers to resides within the hearts of the characters or that Argento was playing a trick on audiences that remembered that Mater Tenebrarum was the name of the witch in Inferno, but I like to think it’s just another ironic joke on Argento’s part.
* In her book Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento (University of Minnesota Press, 1991/2010), Maitland McDonagh discusses the presences of dueling identities and doppelgängers in Tenebrae. Neal and Giermani are counted among these spiritual twins. One serves a factual purpose as a police detective that inspires the other’s fictional exploits. By this logic, Neal murdering his would-be doppelgänger could represent more ironic humour on Argento’s part, as his avatar is, in essence, killing the director’s greatest storytelling adversary – real-world logic.
** The shoplifter is portrayed by actress Ania Pieroni actually plays the Mother of Tears during a mysterious cameo in Inferno. Some have theorized that, by murdering her at the top of the picture, Argento is implying that the possibility of a third movie in his Mothers trilogy has died with her.
*** LGBTQ characters made appearances in all of Argento’s first five gialli, ranging from stereotypes (the shop owner and crossdressers of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage), to anti-stereotypes (the police investigator in Four Flies on Grey Velvet) and genuinely sympathetic portrayals (Carlo in Deep Red). He also secretly cast a woman in male drag as a gay man in Deep Red and the sexy woman that appears in Peter Neal’s flashbacks was played by transgender actress Eva Robin's.
I’ve owned seven other copies of Tenebrae. It’s not even one of my favorite movies – companies just keep releasing incrementally better versions. It all started when Anchor Bay released the first widescreen and uncut (i.e. mostly uncut) version on VHS, under the more common Tenebre title. Then, I had to get that same version on non-anamorphic DVD (plus extras!). Then, I discovered Dragon Entertainment’s R0/PAL Limited Edition (released under the title Unsane), which had its own selection of exclusive extras. But it wasn’t anamorphic, so I had to get Anchor Bay’s 2008 anamorphic re-release. And then HD home video became a thing, so I picked up Arrow’s 2011 Blu-ray, but that disc was plagued with CRT noise and was far too bright, so I had to replace it with Arrow’s remastered 2013 update – a Steelbook release, of course. Oh, but it wasn’t over, because then Synapse Films announced the long-awaited RA/North American Blu-ray debut. Given the fact that Arrow’s pretty good transfer still left room for improvement and that Synapse is one of the most trustworthy sources for cult title remastering and their exclusive extras were very enticing (see below), I was “forced” to fork over cash for the Limited Edition. I sort of forgot that there was a non-LE disc also being released and was surprised to receive a screener copy. Which brings us to this review.
Despite an abundance of available options, there are really only two versions of Tenebrae (or Tenebre) worth comparing at this point – Arrow’s remastered remaster and this release (note that this and the LE are mostly identical discs). First of all, both transfers (as well as Happinet’s Japanese BD transfer) were based on 1080p scans of the original negative elements supplied by French company, Wild Side Films, who also released their own version of the film on Blu-ray. Both companies did their own restoration, creating similar, but definitively different transfers. Though these transfers have essentially the same detail and grain structure, Synapse’s disc comes ahead, because their restoration appears to have been more extensive, including “frame-by-frame removal of digital artifacts present in the provided transfer” and 3K-scanned inserts from the English version that were not available in Wild Side’s scan.
Argento and Tovoli, who had last worked together on the groundbreaking Suspiria, shot Tenebrae on Kodak 300 ASA 35mm film to achieve maximum detail and clarity. The results of their experiment aren’t always effective. Though it was meant to be almost unnaturally crisp and clear, Tenebrae is actually a very grainy movie. There are very few shadows and punchy colors to hide the grain, leaving some viewers to wonder if it wasn’t actually shot on 16mm. Fortunately, the grain texture on this Blu-ray is more or less natural (unlike Arrow’s original, CRT-ridden BD) with the possible exception of some digital artifact discoloration. Synapse’s transfer can appear a bit grainier than Arrow’s re-release in the screen-cap comparisons, but this is because Synapse has opted for a darker and cooler overall tint. Otherwise, the sharpness is comparable between the two transfers and neither exhibits substantial over-sharpening effects. So, then, the preference for one transfer over the other will mostly boil down to the differences in color temperature and gamma. Personally, I think Synapse’s work more closely matches Argento and Tovoli’s intentions than Arrow’s. The harsher shadows are not crushed, the darker hue reveals slightly more information in the most brightly lit sequences, and the fluorescent blue tint approximates the made-for-TV and Andrzej Żuławski-inspired photography that Argento describes in interviews. There are cases where the lighter Arrow transfer is definitely cleaner (such as the wall-painting sequence), but the skin tones are a bit too pink, neutral colors appear semi-muddy, and most white backdrops are blown-out.
Readers that are curious as to what exactly was wrong with Arrow’s initial release or how they stack up against the French Wildside release (which I do not have access to) should check out the caps-a-holic comparison.
Though many DVD versions featured 5.1 and stereo remixes (most courtesy of Chance Digital Sound), Tenebrae was originally mixed in mono sound and that mix has been preserved on all known Blu-ray releases. Synapse’s release includes both the original Italian and English dubs in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. As I usually note while reviewing Italian movies from the era, Tenebrae was shot largely without sound, so both tracks are dub tracks – there is not really an original language version. Since most of the actors were speaking English on set and a number of actors (including Anthony Franciosa and John Saxon) have dubbed their own English language performances, I tend to prefer to watch the film in English. Those that prefer the Italian track have the advantage of hearing Daria Nicolodi and Giuliano Gemma's original voices (they were dubbed in English by Theresa Russell and David Graham, respectively). There’s little difference in the tonal qualities or clarity between the two tracks, nor did I notice any major distortion issues. I suppose the Italian track’s dialogue sounds a bit more detached, but that’s the most I can discern.
The one aural element that could’ve benefited from a stereo spread, had Argento opted for one at the time (I believe that this was the director’s last mono soundtrack, following two stereo soundtracks for Suspiria and Inferno), is the disco-pop, electronic soundtrack. Though credited in shorthand to the Italian prog-rock group Goblin (the same band that scored Deep Red and Suspiria), Goblin had officially broken up sometime before Tenebrae went into production. The soundtrack was technically composed by three core members – Claudio Simonetti (keyboards), Fabio Pignatelli (bass guitar), and Massimo Morante (guitars). While I miss the stereo spread and deeper bass of the album versions of these songs, I have to admit that there isn’t much lost in the more crowded mono mix. The melodies are still crisp, neatly layered, and, most importantly, very loud.
More recently (in 2007), Tenebrae’s main theme was resurrected when it was sampled for French techno band Jus†ice’s songs “The Phantom” and “The Phantom Part 2” for the group’s debut album Cross (stylized as †).
Synapse also offers the option to watch the film with English language titles.
Synapse’s standard edition releases of Lamberto Bava’s Demons (1985) and Demons 2 (1987) were barebones, including almost none of the extensive extras found on their Limited Edition counterparts. Tenebrae’s standard edition release, on the other hand, features almost all of the Limited Edition’s extras, minus the CD soundtrack, DVD copy, and Steelbook packaging. It’s sort of disappointing for those of us that shelled out the big bucks for the LE, but good news for those fans that waited. This disc includes:
Commentary with film critic and Argento scholar Maitland McDonagh – The foremost expert on all things Dario Argento offers a full-bodied discussion on Tenebrae. McDonagh mixes general background information with behind-the-scenes anecdotes as she explores the film’s subtexts and themes. She speaks with a sense of humour (she has fun making fun of the logical fallacies throughout the movie) and rarely slows down – though she occasionally spends her time narrating the on-screen action. Viewers that have read her book will recognize some of what she’s saying, but there’s no reason for her not to repeat her extensive research, since Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds is more or less accepted as the scholarly book on the subject.
Yellow Fever: The Rise and Fall of the Giallo (89:24, HD) – Directed by Calum Waddell, this feature-length documentary chronicles the history of the giallo genre from its origins through its near disappearance in the mid-’80s and pseudo-resurrection in the last decade. This is a very solid primer that should demystify the genre for newcomers and please long-time fans with its one-of-a-kind interviews, including filmmakers (Argento, Luigi Cozzi, Ruggero Deodato, Umberto Lenzi, et cetera – some of which were clearly extended from other Waddell-produced Blu-ray/DVD extras) and a number of respected critics. My only complaint is that the manageable 90-minute runtime doesn’t allow the director and his interview subjects to explore the more obscure sides of giallo. He’s forced to stick to the most popular and celebrated movies/filmmakers (Argento, Fulci, Sergio Martino, Lenzi). There is a brief section where some of the critics/fans discuss their favourite non-superstar gialli, but it zips by so quickly. It also appears that Tenebrae was the only movie Waddell was able to take non-trailer clips from, which makes sense, considering that this is an extra on a Tenebrae Blu-ray. It’s still a little disappointing, though. Really, the subject could sustain its own feature-length doc and, somehow, there has never been a definitive and fully satisfying doc about Argento.
Alternate opening credits sequence (2:15, HD)
Unsane (US Version) end credits sequence (1:53, HD)
International and Japanese trailers
The images on this page are taken from theSynapse BD and the Arrow BD and sized for the page, but due to .jpg compression, they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer. Full-sized .jpg versions can (currently) only be accessed by right-clicking/ctrl-clicking the images and opening them in a new window/tab.